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Bill to restore police pensions passes Senate Committee

Sen. Wayne Harper's bill to restore Utah's Public Safety retirement program has passed a Senate Committee hearing and will be presented to the Senate Floor. (Photo: Ravell Call / Desert News)

Nine years ago, the Utah legislature voted to severely cut its pension program for firefighters and police officers statewide. Today, however, State Senators have made the first step toward giving those officers their pension program back.

A bill to restore Utah’s Public Safety retirement program, sponsored Sen. Wayne Harper, received its first hearing before the Senate Committee yesterday.

Police chiefs, leaders of Public Safety unions, and other supporters came out in large numbers to speak with the committee, most throwing their support behind the bill and calling on the Senators to pass it.

Harper’s bill will still have to pass formal votes on both the Senate and House floors before becoming law. Its near-consensus approval in the Senate Committee hearing, however, has given many supporters of the bill hope.

A worse pension than any surrounding state

Public Safety retirement program

Supporters of Harper’s bill say that Utah has the worst Public Safety retirement program of any surrounding state. (Photo: Ravell Call / Deseret News)

Utah’s police and firefighters, lobbyist David Spatafore told the Senate Committee, have the worst pension plan of any surrounding state.

Any officer who joined the Utah Public Safety department after July 2011, when pension program changed, is required to work 25 years before they are allowed to retire, at which point they will receive a pension equal to 37 percent of their wage each year for life.

Compared to the old program, which offered 50 percent after 20 years of service, this is a significant drop; and, as Spatafore pointed out when he spoke, it’s a worse pension program than any surrounding state.

According to Spatafore, the Public Safety Departments of Utah’s neighboring states offer:

  • Arizona: 62.5 percent after 25 years
  • Colorado: 57.5 percent after 25 years
  • Idaho: 57.5 percent after 25 years
  • Nevada: 62.5 percent after 25 years
  • Wyoming: 62.5 percent after 25 years

Our officers, in short, receive little more than half as much as most of their counterparts in neighboring states.

The chiefs and union leaders who spoke before the Senate Committee said that this has a significant effect on their ability to recruit and retain staff. Spatafore says that nearly 60 percent of the police officers who have joined the force since the pension program was changed have left the job.

Those officers leaving the job, Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross told the Senators, tell their superiors that they are leaving the state or just giving up on the profession altogether. That decision, he says, has a lot to do with the retirement program, which he says is “a conversation daily or weekly.”

Sen. Harper’s bill is meant to correct that. It would continue to require police officers and firefighters to work 25 years before retiring, but would increase their pension plan from 37 percent of their income to 50 percent.

That would still leave Utah with a worse retirement program than any of its neighboring states. Harper, however, hopes that it’ll be enough a gesture of goodwill to keep the officers around.

“Does it take care of all the issues? … No,” Harper admitted while presenting his bill. “But it does make a statement that we are moving forward. … We would have something that people in the system would say: ‘Yeah. This is worth me staying. This is much better than it was before.'”

A question of funding

Police retirement program

While no person present openly opposed improve the Public Safety retirement program, some expressed concerns that the bill could affect indirectly police salaries. (Photo: Deseret News, Laura Seitz)

While there was a near-universal agreement that police pensions should be improved, not everyone agreed with Harper’s plan to fund it.

Under Sen. Harper’s bill, the state would provide a one-time appropriation of $5.3 million to make sure that every police department was able to fund the increased expense improving the retirement would incur.

Over the next few years, however, the state would gradually release some of that support. Harper predicts that, within five to six years, local municipalities would responsible for covering all of the extra expenses on their own.

That part of the bill was a major concern for some of those who spoke before the Senate. Many took what the committee began to dub the “Spatafore Position”: that the state should cover the full expense.

Though Harper insisted that the municipalities would be able find ways to cover the extra expense, Wayne Bradshaw of the Utah League of Cities and Towns expressed concern finding money might have consequences that could make matters worse.

Police salaries are managed by municipal governments, Bradshaw explained, and fall under their budgets. Putting an additional strain on their expenses, he worries, could force some police departments to lower salaries.

Vice-President of the Utah Taxpayers Association Rusty Cannon agreed. “Within about ten years,” he told the Committee, “the burden on local communities, local government, could exceed or come close to $20 million a year.”

Both men, however, gave their support toward restoring police pensions, only objecting to their funding.

All but one member of the Senate Committee ultimately voted in favor of Harper’s bill. The lone dissenter was Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, who, unmoved by the Spatafore Position, asked why the State should cover any of the local governments’ expenses at all.

Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross argued that, costs aside, the issue is really a matter of doing what is right. He asked the Senate:

“How do we look our men and women in the face – that put their lives on the line to protect us – and tell them that you don’t deserve to be paid the same as the states surrounding us?”

How to show your support

KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic have been following this bill closely. They’ve been asking all of their listeners to send a message to Utah’s legislators telling them to restore our police and firefighters’ pensions by signing the #PayOurPolice pledge:

If you missed their discussion of the Senate Committee Hearing live on the air, you can still hear their analysis on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.

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